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The Craft of an Authentic Master Cooper

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How We Found The Last Authentic Master Cooper (Barrel Maker)

It was one of those days when we were wandering round the villages. Pretty tired after waking up in the morning and visiting a peasant market, where, here and there, you can find some old stuff. Then, we headed north to Straja village and spent the rest of the day with the artisans. There are amazing views in Bukowina, mountains with very tall trees, but there is one more thing that we consider a real tourist attraction: the people.

Straja

As the old Romanian saying goes, “The man blesses the place”. This place is blessed with some wonderful people, with beautiful souls, and, some of them, are living links to the past. People like Popescu Gheorghe, son of Ioan, born in 1924, the last cooper (barrel maker) in Straja. He is still affected about our loss in WW2, when North Bukowina became an Ukrainian territory.

“I used to lead my cattle on those pastures”, he says with certain nostalgia, while pointing at the mountain which now belongs to Ukraine.
Butter Churn

How Its Made –  Primitive Wooden Jugs, Wooden Tankards and Butter Churns

As a carpenter, he learned barrel making all by himself. And still has a lot of energy to put into his old crafts.
Barrel Making

He is making butter churns (untarnita),  primitive wooden cheese, yogurt jugs (barbanta) and primitive wooden tankards.
Butter Maker

They were used by peasants for storing cheese, yogurt, milk. When working in the field, on a hot day, the meal would stay fresh and cool in a tankard.
Barrel Making

Have a brief look on Google and you’ll see there aren’t many of these items on the market, and all of them are ready to find their place in museums. Another lovely detail about his craft is that he uses wooden hoops, not metal ones.
Barrel Maker

He makes authentic items! There is no difference between his craft and the ones you can find in museums. And I’m not sure how many people on Earth (if any) are still creating such things.
Barrel Maker

Yes, this man is a treasure. We tried to catch the basics of his craft and as much as I understood, these items have similar crafting principles. He uses spruce wood staves, elm, cherry or ash wood hoops and beech wood covers.
Barrel Making
Butter Churn

He chops the staves with a special hollowing knife and a mallet.
Butter Churn
Mallet

He coaxes the wooden staves on a drawbench.
Drawbench
Cooper Profession

To bond with the other staves, they must be accurately made and measured.
Barrel Staves
Barrel Making

Then, they are  assembled inside two metal hoops.
Barrel Hoops

Then, he replaces these metal hoops with wooden hoops. The craft of these hoops take some additional stages: he cuts the wooden boards with a circular saw, boils them and bends them by hand. The edges are perfectly joined into a circle.
Barrel Hoops

The covers also take some time and precision, to ensure they fit. They are cut with a handsaw, then carved with a chisel.
Barrel Making
Cooper Profession

As you might have guessed, the whole thing takes some time. He finishes a tankard in 2 days, and a butter churn in 4 days. Exclusively by hand.

Wooden Tankards
How to Care for Your Wooden Barrels, Tankards and Butter Churns Made of Wooden Staves

We could not leave without buying a tankard for us.
Primitive Water Can

Later we filled it with fresh kneaded cheese from a sheepfold and after two months of being in the refrigerator, the cheese was excellent! Moreover, it changed it’s taste and consistency into something very similar to the Parmesan cheese. Too bad I didn’t take any picture before we ran out of cheese, but when we’re going to fill it again, I will add some pictures. If you happen to have one, you should be aware to keep it away from the sunlight. If you want to store liquids, like milk, and it drips, this trick will do: fill it with water and add some corn flour. Leave it a day or two. The corn will fit in and cover the empty spaces.

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